“How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?”
― Julia Child
I’ve learned a lot from Julia Child over the years.
As a young boy watching her on public television, I learned that the kitchen was a place I could work hard and find immense pleasure.
As a young man, she inspired me to tackle complex projects in support of cultivating a rich and engaging community.
So, as her 106th birthday approached I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to celebrate her life and the contributions she made to mine.
Many years ago (April 25, 2010 to be exact), I launched the “Julia Child Supper Club.” It was ostensibly a reaction to the film “Julie & Julia.” I hated the character of Julie, but I loved her brief: master the art of French cooking, one Julia Child recipe at a time.
And so I claimed the project as my own: I’d cook through Julia’s master work, but worry less about ticking off each recipe and more about engaging an ovarian American text while immersing myself in a globally significant tradition.
At that moment in my life, I’d hardly spent any time in France. I knew little about putting together a menu. I thought cheese was an hors d’oeuvre and salad was an appetizer. . .
As I look back at the record of that first dinner (yes, we kept a log), it strikes me as rather pitiful. . . . We were just barely eight and for the price of $10 and a bottle of wine, I served store-bought salami and cheese, boeuf bourguignon with sauteed potatoes and a chocolate cake (le marquis) gussied up in the guise of my favorite spicy chocolate cookie, the ChaCha.
All sturdy, classic, and satisfying to be sure, but also rather simplistic, uninspired, and mundane. More the cooking of a leisurely Sunday supper with friends you don’t care about impressing, than an inspired, tour-de-force deep-dive into the complexities of the French culinary arts.
Regardless, over the subsequent years, I went on to debone a duck, and stuff it with pâté I’d made myself and wrap it in puff pastry I’d made myself. I created menus inspired by colors, plays, and artists. Instead of buying cheese, I made it, and I even took the Bible up on its suggestion to boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
Through it all, even when I was experimenting beyond her oeuvre, Julia was my joyful, methodical guide.
So to celebrate her birthday, I wanted not just to honor her spirit but to bear witness to the impact she has had on who I am and how I work.
For our special birthday celebration, we increased club dues to $30 plus a bottle of wine to accommodate inflation and build capacity for luxury (I still lost money on the venture). We struggled with the guest list: social media had not always been the force it is now. . . there were more than eight we’d like to invite, more than eight would like to come. . . I set out designing a menu worthy of Julia and satisfying to me. . .
Julia’s favorite upside-down martini (three parts vermouth, one part gin) should be the signature cocktail.
I thought it was important to have both a hot and cold hors d’oeuvre: classic chicken liver mousse and in honor of our shared New England home, lobster canapé.
As a starter, ouefs en gelée, that bizarre mid-century beloved of poached eggs encased in aspic, which I thought would be fun to modernize using tomato instead of beef consomme.
We’ve been talking about “that fish dish” since I first attempted filets de poissons en souffle with mousseline sabyon on July 18, 2010, so that should be our fish course.
Since we’re in the height of summer, I wanted to do a beautiful assortment of macedoines, marinated vegetable salads, like I remember having at a bbq in Villefranche-sur-Saone, taking advantage of the colors and textures on display at the farmer’s market.
Since we’re in the height of summer, I struggled with what to prepare for our main. I didn’t want anything heavy or hot. . . but meaty and flavorful. . . reading Julia’s headnotes more thoroughly, I learned daubes, a variation of beef stew, could be served cold with salad, especially popular in Provence where Julia and Paul eventually spent their Augusts. That would work.
The rest of menu would be shopping. . . cheese, chocolate, and a seasonal fruit tart, flambeed tableside.
It was all a lot, and a lot of work, and not all of it happened as to plan. . . the gelée didn’t exactly gel, the fish soufflé didn’t exactly rise, the local artisanal bakery was out of seasonal fruit tarts. . . but the tomato consomme was a revelation, the fish delicious, and in the end nobody really needed to eat a slice of pie; a pan of flaming cognac was sufficient in itself.
A lot has changed since that first Julia Child dinner: the complexity and sophistication of my cooking and the scope and commitment of my community, to name two. But perhaps more importantly, the liberation from the tyranny of replication that comes through knowledge, experience and faith.
I don’t need to tick off each recipe. I don’t even have to follow the recipe.
Jacques Pepin has described recipes as rivers. They maintain their names over years, they occupy the same general space from generation to generation. But moment to moment, one experience form another, the river is impossibly recreating itself.
Just jump in, and go with the flow. It’ll be great!